By John Philip Wyllie
Four years ago, the United States Women’s National Soccer Team took American soccer from the depths of obscurity into living rooms across the country and on to the front pages of magazines and newspapers throughout the land. It would have been a fitting conclusion to the brilliant World Cup careers of pioneering players such as Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain if the U.S. had won this year’s tournament at home in front of its legion of loyal fans. Unfortunately, a highly talented, well-disciplined team from Germany had other ideas. And when the dust settled after their epic semifinal struggle at Portland’s PGE Park last Sunday, it was the Germans giving each other congratulatory hugs and flashing relieved smiles.
When the 2003 Women’s World Cup concludes this Sunday at the new Home Depot Center in Carson, California, Germany will play Sweden for the championship at 10:00 a.m. (telecast live on ABC). The best the United States can now hope for is a third place finish. It can earn that on Saturday in Carson with a victory over Canada (12:30 ESPN2).
While last Sunday’s game will go down in the record book officially as a 3-0 victory for Germany, the final score reflects neither the intensity of the battle nor the margin of victory. Despite the loss, American coach April Heinrichs called the match “the greatest game ever played (in Women’s World Cup history).” Judging from the crowd reaction, she might just be right.
Germany got off to an early lead on a Kerstin Garefrekes goal scored off a corner kick in the 15th minute. Eluding Abby Wambach as she attempted to mark her, Garefrekes used her head to redirect a Renate Ligor corner kick past American goalkeeper Briana Scurry. The ball glanced off her head, hit the crossbar near the upper left corner and spun down into the goal. Her goal would be the only one Germany would need on this day of intense frustration for the vaunted U.S. attack. Two additional goals (by Birgit Prinz and Maren Meinert) were scored in stoppage time by Germany as the United States threw caution to the wind and made an all-out assault to try and secure the equalizer. That elusive goal and the subsequent overtime period however, never materialized.
A rock solid defense carried the day for the Germans. Led by their Player of the Match goaltender, Silke Rottenberg and an aggressive, physical, smothering backline, Germany was able to thwart each and every American opportunity. Rot-tenberg had a career game aggressively coming off her line to collect most of the incoming crosses like a giant vacuum cleaner. When the U.S. did get a chance to shoot, the quick closing German defense was usually there to thwart them. Of the 15 shots taken by the United States, six were on goal, but Rottenberg handled every one, some in spectacular fashion.
“I think it was appropriate that Silke Rottenberg was (named) Player of the Match,” said Heinrichs. “She was tremendous.”
While the United States controlled substantial portions of the game and created a handful of decent scoring chances, nobody was able to put one away. Late in the game, Heinrichs called upon Portland native Tiffeny Mil-brett hoping that she might spark the offense like she had so many times before. Milbrett’s entrance on to the field elicited a wildly enthusiastic response from the partisan sold out stadium.
Almost immediately, she was flattened by Rottenberg as she attempted to control a pass inside the penalty box. But what might have been ruled a penalty kick was instead waived off by the referee. The non-call was just another in a series of disappointing near misses endured by the U.S. attack on this frustrating day. With tears welling up in their eyes, the American players somberly answered questions at the post-game press conference.
“We were in and around the box and dangerous the whole game,” Milbrett told them. “We did the best we could. We tried, we were dangerous, but Germany was able to hang in there for 90 minutes. They didn’t roll over. They got two goals at the end there and that solidified their win. The Germans were very good and very organized. We had our chances, but at times the ball just didn’t bounce right.”
Next year at the Olympic Games in Athens, Hamm, Foudy, Chastain, Fawcett and Lilly may get one last opportunity to represent the United States as teammates in a major competition. The Olympics will mark the end of an odyssey that began for them prior to the Inaugural 1991 Women’s World Cup in China. Their focus will then turn toward preserving their legacy, a top-level women’s professional soccer league in the United States.